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Vice without virtue, and darkness without light, is incomplete
on 13 August 2015
“Last Exit to Brooklyn”- Selby took his title from a traffic direction sign- is normally described as a “novel”, but there is no single continuous narrative and it might better be regarded as a series of six loosely interconnected short stories and novellas, all set in the New York Borough of Brooklyn during the 1950s, around a decade before it was published. It was a highly controversial work when it first came out in 1964, largely because it dealt with such taboo subjects as rape, homosexuality transvestism and drug use. It was the subject of a famous British obscenity trial; at first instance the publishers were convicted, but the verdict was overturned on appeal.
The book was not only controversial on account of its subject-matter; Selby’s prose style also raised a few eyebrows. It is written in slangy, demotic language, with much use of profanity. Words are often contracted or run together and spelt according to the rules of colloquial New York pronunciation rather than of strict English orthography. Nor does the book follow normal rules of punctuation; there are, for example, no apostrophes and, more radically, no speech marks. The effect of this can be disconcerting; one reviewer complains that it is not always possible to say whether a character is thinking, speaking or narrating. The same point occurred to me, but unlike that reviewer I felt that this confusion was not an error or evidence of sloppy writing on Selby’s part but something done quite deliberately for effect. It seemed to me that Selby was aiming at creating a new, experimental style of prose, somewhere in between traditional third-person storytelling and modernist first-person stream-of-consciousness narrative.
It is notable that even in passages ostensibly written in the third person there is no single omniscient narrator; Selby adapts the tone of his authorial voice to something appropriate to the main character of that particular story, so that the impression is given that the character is stepping outside himself or herself to narrate his or her own story. In his “Afterword” Selby gave some examples of how this effect had been achieved:
“When Vinnie is the subject the language and rhythms reflect him with their harshness; and with Georgette the sounds and rhythms are sibilant, soft, feminine, a lot of alliteration, the images romantic.”
This ability to reproduce different tones of voice in this way shows him to have been a writer of considerable technical skill; his achievement becomes all the more remarkable when one considers that this was a first novel and that he had had little formal education.
The criticism is sometimes made that the book is “anti-gay”, but I do not think that is accurate. Attitudes to homosexuality in the fifties and sixties were much less liberal than they are today, and it struck me that Selby was not endorsing these illiberal attitudes but rather impliedly criticising them. Public hostility to male homosexuality meant that gay men could not simply be gay men; they were compelled to hide behind either a feminine persona as does Georgette (originally George) or an outward display of swaggering, exaggerated masculinity as does Harry, who is actually married, albeit unhappily. Neither character can be described as sympathetic: Georgette arouses pity rather than sympathy, which is not quite the same thing, and Harry is an unpleasant, deeply flawed, individual. Nevertheless, there is certainly a suggestion that at least some of the flaws in Harry’s personality- his aggression, his abuse of his wife, his uncompromising attitude at work- arise from his being forced to hide his true nature behind a façade.
Harry is the main character in the fifth, and longest, story in the book, which deals with a strike in a local factory. Selby draws a rather negative picture of the union and its activities, but in truth there was a lot to criticise in trade unionism during the fifties and sixties. Some of the abuses mentioned here were even more ingrained in Britain than in America. A movement which had originally been designed to promote working-class solidarity and the interests of the common man had become bogged down in a rules-for-rules-sake mentality and often served to divide the working class by setting union members against non-members. As employers would pass on increased labour costs to their customers in price rises, even successful industrial action could result in one man’s pay rise becoming another (often poorer) man’s increase in the cost of living. Selby is also critical of the employers’ position; the plant’s management despise Harry, rightly seeing his militancy as stemming from a desire for self-aggrandisement, but fail to realise that it is their own confrontational, hard-line attitudes which allow men like Harry to flourish.
Despite Selby’s skill as a writer, I would not describe “Last Exit to Brooklyn” as a favourite of mine, although the reason for this has nothing to do with those aspects of the book which made it so controversial on its release. Under British law at this period, “obscene” was not simply a synonym for “erotic” or “pornographic”. A book could only be condemned as “obscene” if the prosecution could prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that it had a tendency to “deprave and corrupt”- that is to say that the effect of reading it would be to make the average man or woman more likely not merely to think immoral thoughts but also to commit immoral acts. On the basis of this definition it would be difficult to think of a book less “obscene” than “Last Exit”. Selby certainly deals with vice, but he can hardly be accused of doing so in a way which would make a life of vice seem attractive to the average man or woman. To take an example Tralala, the oddly-named prostitute who is the title character of the fourth story, is about as far from the sentimental cliché of the “tart with a heart” as one can get. More like a “whore with a flaw”. Her story could almost be a cautionary story warning women of the dangers of prostitution, and men of the dangers of becoming involved with prostitutes.
My own criticism of the book would have more to do with what I saw as Selby’s bleak, almost misanthropic portrayal of working-class life in Brooklyn. An excessively pessimistic world-view can be just as unrealistic as an excessively optimistic one, and here the author offers us nothing but almost unrelieved pessimism. The world inhabited by his characters is not only violent, mean and sordid, it is also notably joyless. We never see anyone do anything for any motive other than a base one; we never see anyone who seems capable of decency, selflessness or generosity, and when someone is capable of love their live is normally wasted on an unworthy recipient, as is the case with Georgette and her infatuation with the vicious hoodlum Vinnie. And yet their self-absorption only serves to make them miserable; they seem as incapable of happiness as they do of any other positive emotion. The few exceptions, such as the womanising “cool cat” Abe, only seem able to achieve happiness at the expense of others.
An uncompromising look at the seamy side of life is not always an honest one if it gives us an incomplete view of humanity. And because vice is defined in opposition to virtue, just as light is defined as the absence of dark, any attempt to show us one without the other must necessarily be incomplete.